The city of Killeen is making sure its first responders are well compensated for their long hours — but at what cost to the community at-large?

In the current municipal budget, the city authorized $2.1 million for police overtime — nearly double the $1.1 million approved for the previous fiscal year.

The overall Killeen Police Department budget is higher as well, with more than $32.7 million authorized in the current fiscal year, an increase of nearly 7% over the FY 2020 budget.

But even with the increases, KPD has struggled to stay within its budget.

In 2020, the department spent $2.5 million on overtime — more than twice the amount authorized and significantly higher than the current year’s OT budget.

In fact, the amount of overtime worked in the last fiscal year averaged 241 hours per year for each officer. That equates to an extra six weeks of work per officer, based on a 40-hour week.

To cite one eye-opening statistic, the top 10 officers, in terms of overtime hours worked, put in between 612 and 1,204 hours of OT in 2020. That top figures averages out to 100 additional hours worked each month.

While overtime may be a great financial boon to the police officers who earn it, the situation also reflects a significant degree of understaffing in the department. As of last month, KPD had about 235 sworn police officers — about 25 fewer than authorized.

To be clear, the vast majority of overtime worked in the department is voluntary and not mandatory, a KPD spokesman said, which gives officers the opportunity to decline the extra hours if they desire.

But in a rapidly growing city such as Killeen, the stress on an understaffed department can be significant, and the degree to which that stress is experienced by individual officers should be concerning — both to the department and to the residents it serves.

KPD has undergone some organizational restructuring, shifting more personnel to patrol positions, in order to compensate for the shortage of officers, but it’s worth asking whether offering overtime compensation is an adequate substitute for more cops working the beat.

Still, Killeen seems to be viewing more pay as the answer, at least in the near term.

As of July 31, the city had received more than $12.1 million in coronavirus-related funding from several state and federal sources. The city subsequently dedicated about $8.7 million of this money to pay police and fire department salaries and overtime, an application that was authorized under the funding guidelines.

No doubt, some of that money was necessary to compensate for added duties for first-responders amid the pandemic, such as staffing COVID-19 testing stations, as KPD officials noted.

But whether first responders’ salaries should account for more than 75% of the money received seems highly questionable — especially given the myriad challenges residents and business owners faced during the coronavirus-related shutdown earlier this year.

Moreover, it is worth noting that the grant money disbursed to the fire and police departments was over and above what the city budgeted for the current fiscal year. The unexpended money were incorporated into the fund balance, according to city spokeswoman Hilary Shine, who noted that none of the transferred money had been spent yet.

For the current fiscal year, Shine said, the Coronavirus Relief Fund money, in the amount of $3.34 million, was programmed into the municipal budget.

Shine also noted that the City Council approved the use of all money received, in accordance with council-approved policies — and that is as it should be.

Still, it would be preferable if taxpayers were given some input as to what the city does with the windfall — at least where discretionary spending is possible.

The city’s police and fire department budgets account for $56.7 million of the city’s $97.6 million general fund expenditures in the current municipal budget. Adding another $8.7 million to the departments’ allocations in the form of COVID funding seems excessive, given the city’s other needs.

Similarly, the $1.9 million in coronavirus relief money earmarked for salaries at the Killeen Fort Hood Regional Airport seems to be an unnecessary expenditure, given the other pressing challenges presented by the pandemic and its impact on the community.

Certainly, much of this state and federal COVID-related funding comes with requirements and restrictions, so city spending choices may be limited. But this outside funding has the potential to free up other money in the municipal budget — and that’s where the city has the opportunity to help a larger cross-section of residents.

Disturbingly, the city has yet to provide funding to help small businesses recover from the impact of coronovirus restrictions, some of which have been in place since March.

Last month, Temple announced it would be allocating about $200,00 in coronavirus relief money to businesses in the city, through an agreement with the Central Texas Council of Governments. Belton has offered similar grants, and Harker Heights has provided two rounds of checks to small businesses since October, totaling more than $339,000.

Meanwhile, businesses in Killeen are still awaiting assistance from the city.

In late October, the Killeen City Council approved using a portion of the next round of coronavirus relief funding for business assistance, via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to help small businesses, but that money hasn’t been released by the government, according to Shine.

For the sake of the Killeen’s small-business community, the city should set aside some money that has been freed up by the influx of relief funding to get assistance to those who need it — even before the government releases its anticipated grant money.

This good-faith expenditure can help keep the city’s vital small businesses afloat during what could be a difficult winter — especially if the pandemic forces a second round of business restrictions.

The city can assist businesses on an even larger scale when the federal grant money is received, further enhancing the stability of the local economy.

Killeen’s officials are to be commended for placing a premium on ensuring adequate pay for the city’s valuable first responders, especially during this difficult and challenging time. Maintaining the effective operation of our police, fire and EMS services is crucial, especially during a pandemic.

But our elected and administrative officials must take a more proactive approach to providing assistance to our city’s small-business owners, their families and their customers.

Otherwise, there may be far fewer establishments to serve and protect in the coming year.

And that’s a debilitating loss that our community cannot afford. | 254-501-7543

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